Poor Bill Gates. After decades perched on top of the Forbes Rich List, he has been toppled by the improbably named Carlos Slim.
Mr Slim, a cigar-smoking, septuagenarian, Mexican telecoms tycoon, pipped Mr Gates to the top spot with an estimated net worth of $53.5bn, a fractional $500 million more than Microsoft’s man. Britons by comparison are paupers. The Duke of Westminster, our richest man, was stuck in 45th place with a humiliating $12bn.
We have a curious love-hate relationship with wealth. We know that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, inducing a kind of moral amnesia in even the most sensible of us. We know that rich people are often famously lonely and unhappy. We know that huge sums of money can hit us like a meteor, smashing up the relational networks that keep us loved and sane.
But who hasn’t fantasized about being Bill Gates or, more modestly, about winning £56 million on the EuroMillions, as a British couple did recently? Who hasn’t imagined the charities they would set up, the good they would do, the yachts they would buy?
The Bible doesn’t have the monochromatically negative attitude to money as is popularly believed. It recognises that God’s creation is good and that in as far as money is a means of manipulating that creation, like fire or a knife, it is itself both good and useful. But just as fire and knives are dangerous, so is money – hence the innumerable Biblical warnings about it.
Its danger lies in the fact that it demands our faith. Cheques, pounds, coins, even gold are objectively worthless. You cannot eat, drink or breathe them. They will not shelter you, heal you or help you harvest crops. They only work because there is widespread public agreement that they represent something that is useful. Otherwise, why exchange scraps of paper or debased metal for a loaf of bread or pint of milk? In order for money to work, we need to have faith it.
There is nothing necessary about that public trust. You only have to look at inter-war Germany or modern Argentina to see that a society can lose its faith in money, reducing cash to heaps of worthless paper and its owners to hungry, homeless, impoverished wrecks.
That money demands our faith in order to work is not in itself a problem. In one sense, every tool we use requires that we trust it to work. But because money promises so much, it acts like a black hole for our trust, sucking in all our faith as it offers us ever more.
Other tools we trust – knives, fire, ladders, cars, computers – have specific tasks. We trust them in so far as they do what they are made to do. But money promises everything: food, warmth, shelter, security, comfort, respect, status, sensual pleasure. Money works by demanding our faith in return for apparent fulfilment. Trust it and it will offer you the world.
Hence Jesus’ famously tough words: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 7:19), he tells people in the Sermon on the Mount. His initial explanation is that no earthly banking system is truly secure. Somehow or other, whether through moths, rust or thieves, treasures decay, cheques bounce, banks crash, currencies devalue and economies hyper-inflate. But that isn’t the real reason.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus goes on to say (Matthew 7:21). Money is never just money. It is about trust, about faith. And faith is about love.
Nick Spencer, Director of Studies at Theos, a public theology think tank which exists to undertake research and provide commentary on social and political arrangements.